Biking into Bygone Days
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a (wo)man, I put away childish things.”
Well, maybe. But not all childish things should be “put away.” Sometimes revisiting childhood pleasures is just that—a pleasure.
Like everyone else, I have been in semi-quarantine for a long time (how long has it been? I can’t really remember). Trips to the grocery store have constituted a social outing. Even the meetings I report on have been virtual, “attended” in an upstairs bedroom.
I have been far from stir-crazy because most of my work and hobbies are sedentary, conducted as easily online as in person. I have had time to complete projects long on the back burner and am not yet halfway down my to-do list. I even have a big yard to tend, where I can gather members of my family for impromptu picnics. And, from time to time, we have escaped to our second home in northern Maine to look at a different set of walls. So, in some ways, life hasn’t changed too much.
But even I, sedentary to the bone, have grown restless. There is little exercise in preparing food, not much more in weeding flowers. My body began to chant insistently, “Use me!” And my thoughts turned yearningly to riding a bike.
Now I have not really been on a bicycle since I got my driver’s license, a span of time I am unwilling to detail for you. But be assured, it’s been a long time indeed. Last year, a similar impulse gripped me and my brother offered me a rather nice bike he hadn’t ridden in years. I tried it once, found the seat excruciating and that the straight handlebars made me feel uncertain of my balance. But it was there in the barn and it was free. I decided all I needed was a comfortable seat.
Which took us to a bike shop in Torrington and serendipity. As we walked through the door a standard woman’s bicycle sat gleaming in front of me. “That’s what I want,” I told my husband.
A quick inquiry revealed it was a 1960s English-manufactured bike with a comfortable old-style seat and curved handlebars that allow you to sit upright, looking at the countryside and not the pavement. Best of all, it cost only twice the amount of the proposed new seat.
So, one more bike was added to the collection in my barn that stretches back to “Redtop,” the bike given to me when I was five years old to quell my fierce determination to claim my older brother’s new bicycle.
Redtop was not like the bikes given to toddlers today. It was a standard bicycle, too large for my then-small stature. I compensated for the fact I could not step on the brakes by running into the sides of buildings and falling over. Shortly, age took care of the size difficulties and I rode my trusty companion until I was 12 when my father presented me with a wonderful new steed, a 50-year-old bike his employer had given him that dad refurbished just for me.
The “new” bike, also still in the barn, dates back to the first decade of the 20th century. Its rear fender still has the holes drilled into it to accommodate strings that ran down to the hub to keep Edwardian ladies’ long skirts from catching in the spokes. But Pop had labored over the bike, repainting it, restoring it to good working order and I was delighted to my core. It fit my almost adult stature and with it my friends and I were free to explore the distant corners of our town.
In one of those corners my Aunt Lotta and Uncle Ben had their farm. It was a small farm in the way farms were before industrial agriculture became the norm and the aging couple ran it in much the same fashion that their father had farmed in the 19th century. Ben’s health was failing in those days and my aunt hired me, for the princely sum of 20 cents a day, to ride a mile-and-a-half to the farm, bring in the cows from their day pasture, feed them and then ride home again. I loved the farm and, some 60 years ago, a $1.40 a week in a youngster’s pocket, was quite sufficient.
About the same time my parents gave me a dog, a lovely little Shelty Collie mix with a penchant for herding cows. Tammy went everywhere with me until the day she chased a squirrel into the road and was hit by a car. Her front legs were shattered and, while the vet eventually managed to save them both, they were scarred and stiff forever after. She could not run beside my bike anymore, but she still wanted to go with me.
I started to carry her on my hip, like an infant, piloting the bike with the other hand, a process that made my father nervous. He solved the problem by raising the sides of my bicycle basket with stout wire and lining it with a thick foam pad. Tammy took to it instantly, sitting on her tailbone, one foreleg extended along the wire rim, laughing down at other dogs.
We were free to roam again and she went back to work as a herding dog. On our way home each afternoon, we would stop at a roadside snack shack and split our earnings, a 10-cent ice cream cone for her, another one for me. Life was very nearly perfect on those hot summer afternoons so long ago.
A car came between me and my bike and, sadly, old age eventually claimed my little friend. Childhood faded in my rear-view mirror as I drove off into my new life as a young married woman. But I still remembered the pleasure of the wind in my hair—no helmets then—the sun on my back and the sensation of free-wheeling down a road with my best pal riding shotgun.
You can imagine my joy last week when I took my next 50-year-old “new” bike out of the yard and down the road, feeling every bit as agile and carefree as I had at 12 years of age. There was no Tammy in the basket, no farm to go to, no cows to bring in but the sun was still warm, the wind still swept through my hair and the road zipped by at a most satisfactory speed. You may not, as Thomas Wolfe sourly predicted, be able to go home again but it appears you can bring some part of it with you.